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Courageous Conversations: Two districts use model, get varied results

Two other school districts that have used Courageous Conversations could provide some insight into how it's being used and received in Portland Public Schools.

One, Cherry Creek Public Schools in Colorado, is in its 12th year of contracting with Glenn Singleton's Pacific Educational Group and still going strong. The other, Ann Arbor Public Schools in Michigan, did not renew its contract in 2012 after seven years. A district spokeswoman says it was due to budget constraints and the fact that they could use administrators who'd been trained as equity leaders to continue the work.

Ann Arbor school members, however, shed more light on the situation.

Christine Stead and Simone Lightfoot, two members of the Ann Arbor Board of Trustees who had just come into office in 2010, say they were unsatisfied with Pacific Educational Group's accounting measures of the equity work.

"We’re pretty data driven, pretty affluent, with smart constituents," Board of Trustee Simone Lightfoot says. "We didn't find that they were able or willing ... to provide a measurement of growth, improvement, something quantifiable."

Lightfoot and Stead had requested data from Singleton when he visited Cherry Creek in 2010 for a check-up on the contract work.

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Their district had adopted Courageous Conversations five years earlier, wanting to better serve their growing and diversifying population. With 16,000 students, Ann Arbor is significantly smaller than PPS (48,000 students), but students of color are 49 percent of the population.

Students of color comprise 55 percent of PPS, the same as Cherry Creek.

Singleton's presentation to the board was disappointing, Stead recalls.

"What didn't happen was a direct link to their specific work, like identifying how many staff had been trained, improvements in classrooms like better participation in AP courses, some of the indicators that would demonstrate more of a direct tie. ... When you look to make an investment and you're really trading off resources that affect the classroom, they should make a good case for themselves."

The contract was not renewed, which came as a disappointment to the teachers and parents who'd grown invested in Courageous Conversations and were disappointed to see it slip away, district spokeswoman Liz Margolis says.

"It's something we really do believe in," she says. "Most of our teachers and all principals and administrators have been trained and follow the model. ... It's really deep in our district."

Measurable success

Cherry Creek, a district of 54,000 students in an affluent but diverse neighborhood in Denver, was one of Courageous Conversations' earliest adopters.

District communications manager Tustin Amole says all student groups have made huge gains, most visible in the steadily rising graduation rates: blacks were most recently at 84 percent, Hispanics 79 percent, Native Americans 75 percent and white students 89 percent.

That puts their achievement gap, between their highest and lowest performing group, at 14 percentage points. PPS' achievement gap is 39 points, between white and Native American students.

Being five years ahead in the Courageous Conversations work, Cherry Creek has gone through tensions among teachers and parents, Amole says.

There were longtime teachers "who were taking the color-blind approach who felt like they were being accused of being racist," she says. "We had some teachers who didn't want anything to do with it. It's an evolutionary process."

From parents, Amole says the biggest complaint was that the equity work was taking time and resources away from their high-achieving students.

"We heard 'We're done talking now; we have to get to work,' " she says. "They were looking for specific tools they could implement immediately."

But two pieces have been pivotal to Cherry Creek: a parent piece (Partnership for Academically Successful Students or PASS teams), which PPS is starting, and a student piece, which PPS has not yet launched.

Cherry Creek has sent its group of Latino high school students on the SOAR team (Students Organized Around Anti-Racism) to attend and present at Courageous Conversations summits and share what they learn at other schools.

The PASS teams are open to all parents but consist mostly of parents of color. They meet monthly at their schools, with teachers, principals and administrators, to hash out issues related to student achievement.

"Those conversations are heard all the way up to the top," Amole says. "Then the conversation is, 'What can we do, what can we do to help?'

"Ultimately, it's school and parent partnerships that yield the best results."